Much of the new energy in political protest in New York is coming from artists. The Reagan administration intervenes in Latin America, economically supports institutionalized racism in South Africa, speeds up the arms race and systematically disenfranchises the unwealthy. Artists are gradually identifying the consequences of these policies with the humanistic principles that underlie the activity of art as human expression.
There is no massive left movement in the United States so arts activists must function in a vacuum. Last year a poil indicated that only 19 per cent of the population knew ‘what side we are on’ in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Nor is there any tradition of critical art works which challenge the status quo and encourage audiences to think about their world. We have no David Edgars, Howard Brentons or Caryl Churchills writing for our theator; our government would be most unlikely to sponsor exhibits like London’s ‘Art for Whom?’ and ‘Art for Society’ of a few years ago.
Thus activist artists are faced not only with the absence of a political context for their work, but must also overcome a deeply entrenched image of the artist as necessarily a marginal figure - while at the same time trying to pursue a career in one of the world’s most competitive cities.
New York is the cultural Mecca for artists from all over the country who want to Make It. But the images of the celebrity living in a swanky loft and of the starving artist huddling in a cluttered garret belong to the same mystical spectrum. Both scenarios romanticize the artist ‘into a rarefied sphere. Celebrating the artist as a mysterious genius who requires solitude, these views offer more than an excuse for eccentricity; they justify, indeed demand, that artists remain aloof from their world.
So arts activists have needed to form organizations to work politically. The June 12, 1982 peace rally in Central Park sparked greater awareness and concern about the arms race among artists just as it did among the general population. Over 1,000 painters, writers, sculptors, dancers, actors and so on attended, many discovering for the first time that they could participate as artists. Puppets, performances, placards, banners and costumes surrounded the nearly one million people who marched in the US’s largest-ever demonstration. And much of this work was assembled and co-ordinated by groups that had formed months before to mobilize specific constituencies, - Dancers for Disarmament, Artists for Nuclear Disarmament and Performing Artists for Nuclear Disarmanient (PAND).
Though the press was patronizing about the rally and Reagan charged that it was planned and controlled by the KGB, the antinuclear movement in this country is actually quite tame politically. Moral repugnance rather than political analysis defines the antinuke stance. In the last two years, this impulse has become more apparent as the peace movement has remained primarily white, middle-class, and disconnected from other political issues. So have the artistic organizations, almost all of which have nearly dissolved.
PAND, one of the largest of the associations to form in 1982, accomplished many impressive projects, but lately has been facing organizational crises. On April 5, 1982, PAND held an inaugural rally to ‘unite the performing arts community in a sustained and practical effort to bring about global nuclear disarmament’. Over 1,000 people attended and others had to be turned away because there was not enough room for everyone. Yet today there are only a handful of active PAND members in New York.
But one movement that has, at least so far, sustained and built upon its initial enthusiasm, is Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America. Artists Call is really more of a cultural campaign than an organization. When some artists got together to discuss plans to hold a benefit for exiled Salvadorean artists, they thought of more ambitious ways to educate artists and the public about Central American issues. They distributed a letter throughout the art world in the summer of 1983 which began, ‘Dear Fellow Artist, We’re starting down the Viet Nam road again...’
People responded and participated in a series of events in January 1984. They decorated Soho streets with banners representing political and cultural heroes from the Americas. And they organized a nighttime candlelight procession in which 500 artists marched, dressed in black and bearing signs with names of Central American disappeared persons.
The basic principle of Artists Call reads, ‘If we can simply witness the destruction of another culture, we are sacrificing our own right to make culture’.
Artists Call, Art Against Apartheid, and PAND, (which is currently preparing a series of January events entitled ‘State of the Mind/State of the Union’) represent a new drive towards making political confrontation an integral part of an aesthetic sensibility.
What is more, artists find creative challenges as they seek to involve the public directly in cultural expressions. None of them believe that art, by itself, can lead people to political engagement. Arts activism will remain marginal until social ferment becomes a force to reckon with. In the meantime, artists are approaching the new Reagan term with new efforts to stir up that ferment.
Alisa Solomon is a writer for the New York City newspaper The Village Voice.